Religious humor has become commonplace in the secular West, but it came with a price.

More than any people on Earth, the Danes should know the terrible price of religious humor, for the first great Christian humorist arose from their dour midst as if by immaculate conception. “Humor is intrinsic to Christianity,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, because “truth is hidden in mystery.” But Kierkegaard the humorist was sent to the Danes after the Enlightenment had laid waste to Christianity, that is, after the French revolutionary army had conquered traditional Europe. He wielded humor out of desperation, after Denmark already had started down its long slide toward secularism.

Like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, muses the secular West after the Danish cartoon catastrophe, “Why can’t a Muslim be more like a Jew?” After all, Arab newspapers daily publish hideous caricatures of Jews, who do not burn down Arab embassies in response. But the Jews learned to swallow humiliation at a dreadful cost. When Rome defiled their temple at Jerusalem in AD 66, the Jews rebelled. Rome crushed them, but they rose again in AD 132, fighting more Roman legions under Hadrian than had conquered Britain. After most Jews were dead or exiled, the remnant invented self-deprecating humor. [1]

Deprecatory cartoons of Jesus would have earned you the dungeon or the stake during most of Christianity’s 2,000-year history. Britain still has not abolished the Blasphemous Libel Law against mockery of the Church of England, although the last Englishman punished for blasphemy was a certain William Gott, who received nine months’ imprisonment in 1922 for comparing Jesus to a circus clown.

“To hell with them if they can’t take a joke!” artillerymen say after one of their shells kills their own comrades. Mockery cuts a swath of destruction through traditional society, which, experience tells us, often dies hard – by the hand of a Hadrian, or a Napoleon. The Jyllens-Posten cartoon affair is even worse than it looks. The Mohammed cartoons are tame compared with other topics that the mainstream media avoid. The cartoon controversy barely qualifies as a skirmish in a greater war.

With freedom of choice and access to information come doubt. Western scholars doubt whether Mohammed ever existed [2] or, if he existed, whether the Koran was invented two centuries after his death, or indeed whether the Koran even was written in Arabic. Christianity and Judaism are bloodied – indeed, drained almost dry – by nearly two centuries of scriptural criticism; Islam’s turn barely has begun.

More revealing than the refusal of the mainstream American media to repost the Mohammed cartoons is the disappearance of more dangerous material previously available. Newsweek’s “Challenging the Koran” story of July 28, 2003, has vanished from the magazine’s website. The government of Pakistan had banned that issue, which among other things reported a German philologist’s contention that the Koran was written in Syriac rather than classical Arabic, translating the “virgins” of Paradise as “raisins.” As I observed before, the topic of Koranic criticism has disappeared from the mainstream media. Since the suppression of the Newsweek story the Western media have steered clear of the subject.

It is well and good for Western newspapers to republish the Mohammed cartoons in solidarity with Jyllens-Posten. But not one major news outlet has reported the most controversial religion story of the year, the debate among the pope and his advisers about whether and to what extent Islam is capable of reform (see When even the pope has to whisper, January 10). Close friends accused me of endangering the life of Pope Benedict XVI by publishing a report already available on the Internet. If it is true that the pope cannot speak to the subject for fear of assassination, then he is a prisoner in the Vatican as much as was the unfortunate wartime pope Pius XII.

Muslims rage at affronts to their faith because the modern world puts their faith at risk, precisely as modern Islamists contend. [3] That is not a Muslim problem as such, for all faith is challenged as traditional society gives ground to globalization. But Muslim countries, whose traditional life shows a literacy rate of only 60%, face a century of religious deracination. Christianity and Judaism barely have adapted to the modern world; the Islamists believe with good reason that Islam cannot co-exist with modernism and propose to shut it out altogether.

Doubt has all but killed Christian and Jewish faith, despite the efforts of the theologians to tame it. Doubt is indispensable to faith, wrote Pope Benedict in 1967 when he was the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger: “It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty.” The Gates of Hell, however, have won more rounds than St Peter. As Cardinal Avery Dulles told Paul Elie of Atlantic Monthly in January:

The breakdown of traditional societies and the indifference of modern people to religious faith have left us with a burden of re-evangelization … Germany and the Low Countries give us no reason to be optimistic. Quebec is a desert. Ireland is very nearly lost to prosperity … With [American] society’s freedom of choice come our selfishness and competition, which are now being exported all over the world. We are not immune to the forces of secularization that are being felt in Europe. Is the Christian residue in America strong enough to resist them? I worry that it is not.

With stable institutions and material wealth, the secular West evinces a slow decline. Not so the Muslim world, where loss of faith implies sudden deracination and ruin. In the space of a generation, Islam must make an adjustment that Christianity made with great difficulty over half a millennium. Both for theological and social reasons, it is unequipped to do so. Muslims might as well fight over a cartoon now; they have very little to lose.

Throughout the world, literacy erodes traditional society, and the collapse of traditional society leads to declining population growth rates. But in the Muslim world these trends hit like a shock wave. Both the traditional life of Muslims as well as Muslim theology have been frozen in time, such that Muslims are repeating in compressed time trends long at work in the West. The result is devastating.

Most members of religious groups adhere to their beliefs because they were born into a faith and learned no other way to live. Traditional society admits of no heresy or atheism because religion governs the socialization of individuals. Once a traditional people has the opportunity to choose its beliefs, however, the result most often is a sudden fall-off in religious practice. We observe a close statistical relationship between literacy and the percentage of non-religious people in a population in the cross-section of countries. 

Once the literacy rate reaches 90%, the percentage of non-religious jumps into two digits. That is as true for Muslim countries as well as for non-Muslim countries. Because the Muslim literacy rate is so far below the average, though, few Muslim countries have a high proportion of non-religious people.

Globally, we discern a clear link among literacy, secularism, and birth rates; the high birth rates of traditional society fall sharply with greater literacy and weaker religious belief. In the non-Muslim world (Exhibit 2), literacy alone explains 46% of variation in population growth.

In the Muslim world, however, the link between rising literacy and falling population growth is much more pronounced. In the Muslim world (Exhibit 3), variation in literacy explains nearly 60% of the variation in population growth, not a surprising result considering that the Muslim world begins with extremely high population growth and extremely low literacy rates.

Of all the large Muslim countries, Iran is most at risk, with a literacy rate of 71% and a population growth rate of 1.3%, projected to decline to zero within a generation. I have elaborated elsewhere on the devastating implications of a large population of dependent aged for a poor country (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005). These considerations prompted me to predict early on that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad no more would shrink from confrontation with the West than did Adolf Hitler. But the rest of the Muslim world faces the same pressures.

The global relationship among literacy rates, secularization and population growth makes clear that the fragility of Muslim traditional society is not a Muslim problem as such. But the Muslim world is far more vulnerable than the numbers suggest, for two reasons. The first reason is chronological, and the second is theological.

It is not a good thing to come late to the table of globalization. China and its neighbors have emerged from the maelstrom of revolution and the violent loss of tens of millions of lives to become actors on the world economic stage. Of China’s 1.3 billion people, 400 million are integrated into the world division of labor, and millions more are becoming urbanized, literate and productive by the year. India remains behind China but has good prospects for success. Against these formidable competitors, few countries in Western Asia, Africa or Latin America can hope to prevail. In a world that has little need of subsistence farmers and even less need of university graduates with degrees in Islamic philosophy, most of the Muslim world can expect small mercy from the market.

The theological problem I have discussed in other locations, most recently in reporting the pope’s seminar at Castelgandolfo. Christianity and Judaism have adapted to doubt, the bacillus of modern thought, by inviting doubt to serve as the handmaiden of faith. No better formulation of this can be found than in Benedict XVI’s classic Introduction to Christianity. The object of revelation, the believer, becomes a participant in revelation, in dialogue with the Revealer. This great innovation has not prevented the death of traditional, autonomic Christian belief, but it has left an enduring core of Christian faith in the West well inoculated against skepticism. As the pope explained, the eternal, unchanging character of the Koran that the Archangel Gabriel dictated verbatim to Mohammed admits of no doubt. Muslim belief is not dialogue, but submission. It is as defenseless before the bacillus of skepticism as the American aboriginals were before the smallpox virus.

That is why Muslims cannot respond to Western jibes at the person of their Prophet except as they did to the Jyllens-Posten cartoons. I do not sympathize with scoffers but, like Benedict, I see doubt as an adversary to be won over, rather than as an enemy to be extirpated. I would not have drawn nor published these cartoons, but when the lines are drawn, I stand with Western freedom against traditional authority. I write these lines over a Carlsberg and shall drink no other lager until the boycott of Danish product ends.

1. On February 2 fell the 150th death anniversary of the greatest of Jewish humorists, the poet Heinrich Heine. Heine knew that Jewish humor was a salve, not a cure, for humiliation. In a poem called “To Edom,” using the rabbis’ ancient derogatory term for the Christian world, Heine remonstrated that Christians and Jews “tolerate each other fraternally. I tolerate your rages, and you tolerate my breathing.” He also wrote (as translated by Aaron Kramer):
“And the tears flow on forever
Southward in silent ranks
They flow to the Jordan river
And overrun the banks.”

2. See for example Crossroads to Islam, by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren (Prometheus Books: New York 2003).

3. See Crisis of Faith in the Muslim World Part 2: The Islamist response,  November 8, 2005.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *